Last week, Stockholm hosted the most important yearly meeting to discuss the world's largest public health crisis. No, this was not the planning meeting for World AIDS Day, nor was it a global malaria conference. It was World Water Week -- the biggest meeting outside the World Water Forum, which looks at solutions for the global water and sanitation crisis; water-related diseases cause up to five million deaths each year and the illness of billions.
But major media seem to avoid this topic -- as a global public health topic -- like the plague. I'm perplexed by this, because the water and sanitation challenge is the one crisis that could be addressed. While there is no silver bullet to fix this problem, there are tried and true solutions that can work with long-term commitment. For example, we used to have cholera in the U.S., but we rooted it out. The main ingredient lacking to make this possible for the rest of the world is political will.
People rely on media for insight into what is happening in the world. They want to know trends, the major issues and problems that affect them, and possible solutions. The lack of access to water and sanitation, and the growing efforts to provide it, is a newsworthy topic because it is the difference between life and death for millions. Water and sanitation is an essential building block of society because it is the foundation for commerce, education, health, environmental preservation, and national security. Furthermore, as the world becomes more interconnected the lack of water and sanitation infrastructure in other countries also becomes relevant to U.S. national security.
Allowing communities around the world to continue to go without the most essential thing for life next to air is absurd from a humanitarian perspective -- we would never let our own children live without safe drinking water and a toilet. It is also incongruous from a national security perspective.
Fortunately, Congress made the connection between providing clean drinking water to the world's poor and national security by elevating it to a top priority of U.S. foreign policy in the 2005 Water For The Poor Act. The act calls for a coordinated federal strategy and public-private partnerships to meet the Millennium Development Goal of reducing by half by 2015 the number of people without access to water and sanitation. Recent appropriations bills will provide $300 million for implementation of the act if they are passed in the coming months.
Unfortunately, the mainstream media are not reporting enough on the global water and sanitation crisis, given its importance. Neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post wrote a single sentence about World Water Week in Stockholm, which ended with the message that "it"s time to do better on global poverty, sanitation, water scarcity and climate change." [PDF] The one Associated Press article, which was picked up (according to a Google news search) in the U.S. media was focused entirely on bio fuels. The article never even mentioned the severity of this global problem.
Media don't have far to look if they want good stories. Photographer Gil Garcetti has a new book coming out: Water is Key: a Better Future for Africa. Matt Damon's film, Running the Sahara, is scheduled to be released this fall. Each day -- across the U.S. -- churches, Rotary clubs and non-profits sponsor well projects. This story is local and global. It's an environmental story and a public health story. It's everywhere but nowhere -- so far.